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Navigating leadership hurdles: Controversial

January 29, 2018

This is the second in a four-part series about three major ministry hurdles and how to address them.

In part one of this series, we discussed the three lenses you want to be gauging and the one temptation you’ll face whenever a massive leadership hurdle is brought to your attention.

In this article, we’ll cover one leadership tension you could face: Controversial hurdles.

First of all, remember that controversy and priorities are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

If this student feels like your ministry is not doing enough to fight Planned Parenthood or to rally relief efforts for global earthquake victims, that may be critical and urgent to them, though your team may feel the issues are either out of the scope of your ministry or not a priority to be addressed at this time

But when they want to discuss your feelings concerning an upcoming protest on campus, you need to be ready to respond.

So what do you do? Use your three grids:

1. Their need

They need to know that you are aware of the issue and that you care about the issue.

It’s amazing to me how many of these convos begin with, “I don’t know if you know this or not, but…”

Almost always, I’m aware of the dilemma but they assume that since they’re not seeing the action they want to see, I am not aware and thus don’t really care.

As I said last time, the issue facing your student will block their flow of revelation until it is resolved.

As my associate college pastor, Maddie, often says, “What’s magnified to them must get our attention!”

2. My approach

Listen first, assess second.

I have found that the remedy for the controversial is, “I listen first” and my desire is to respond with a language of empathy.

From my facial expressions to my tone of voice, I want them to sense that I am aware of this pain and I care about it. Only then can I assess how to respond to their questions.

3. Our plan

When it comes to controversial subjects, we want to marry honesty with empathy. Meaning, we want to display compassion while we deal honestly with the subject at hand.

Speaking of controversial subjects, let’s discuss race for a moment. Black lives matter. Police lives matter. Donald Trump’s wall. The white church. The black church.

I think we can all agree that the topic of race has been quite a sensitive subject these past couple of years. So I was quite interested to hear what Baylor senior and Burundi native, Erica, had to say when she requested a meeting with me to discuss race and the state of our current college ministry.

She was humble, yet direct:

“I don’t know if your staff has realized that most of the college ministry is white. While the church is growing in diversity, the college ministry seems to never discuss this topic. I know people who are leaving the church because of this, and I have actually contemplated it. So I just wondered if you had thought about it before or had a plan about what you were going to do going forward.”

I have to be honest; I was immediately defensive.

As background, I lived in the inner city for 10 years.

As a long time youth pastor, we built our ministry by reaching out to all types of people and I had African American and Latino families that called me son, brother, father.

Our church had worked intentionally to be 25% non-white (and growing) and our college ministry started an international student ministry that really exploded.

In years past, we hosted many diversity conversations and I preached quite a few sermons, but in the last several years more pressing responsibilities—and crises—had taken my time and attention. I let the church handle that and not our college ministry.

It took everything in me to reel it back in and to walk myself through the three grids I knew I needed to utilize.

1. Erica’s need

For me to be aware of our lack of diversity, her feelings, and places of pain as a part of our college ministry; she needed to know I care about bringing more diversity into our ministry.

2. My approach

Listening to her, asking questions, responding in humility, and apologizing.

“You’re right, it has been a while since we’ve done a series on diversity or had a discussion panel on race. Thank you for bringing this to us; I need you on my team. Would you work with us to close the gap?”

3. Our plan

After discussions with my staff, we invited Erica to serve on our production team in order to include a diversity perspective in all that we do from the stage.

We also decided to host a racially diverse panel about race and to equip our top leaders in how to engage racial tensions.

Finally, we hosted two round-table forums in April open to any college student wanting to build intentional relationships across racial lines.

Let me be clear: this process was not easy. But I am so thankful that God brought these conversations to the forefront.

Little did I know that Baylor would make headline news (again) for a racially charged incident, and the young lady caught in those crosshairs was involved in our ministry.

And how could I have known that the election of Donald Trump would cause such an emotional uproar in many minorities and international students?

During those days, people weren’t wanting to know how to study the Bible more. Evangelism, discipleship, and mission were not at the forefront of their thinking.

They needed leaders loving enough to listen and bold enough to confront the facts.

After two decades of helping lead college students through the jungle of controversial subjects in today’s world, I’m not sure that giving them the perfect answer is really the goal.

It’s taking time to sit down and hear their frustrations, questions, and suggestions that communicates you care about them and the issues important to them.

In the end, it is these types of things that will build trust and therefore build relationships—and that’s what this generation is looking for more than anything else.

From wrestling through sensitive subjects like women in ministry or theologically controversial topics like the Holy Spirit, to handling the heated debates surrounding our recent elections, I’m thankful that we have not shied away from engaging these conversations.

Erica would say that this year was one of the more life-transforming for her. And we know we’d be light years behind had it not been for her investment and insight into our strategy.

In the end, God has used these delicate conversations to shape and mature us.

As a result, the church has gotten better and our students have gone much deeper. And the gospel has not been impeded!

“Oh how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1

Happy pastoring!

Tune in to part three as we tackle theological hurdles.